(Scott’s posts are archived on the Regular Columns page under the title “Apologetics: Apply Liberally to Affected Area.” This is the ninth post in a series on the TCN program. It is also posted on his website Stand Firm.) Download this entire TCN series.
The Smalcald Articles, written by Dr. Martin Luther, declare about our material principle, justification by grace through faith:
“Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin.” (SA, II, I, 5)
We are at a crossroads in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It’s time to make a decision. The result of this decision is not inconsequential. It will determine whether or not our Synod remains faithful. Will we stand on the Word, or will we yield?
Aside from the momentous doctrinal crises in the Transforming Churches Network (TCN) that we’ve already explored, such as those related to Office of the Holy Ministry and the article of vocation, these issues are symptoms of a more serious root cause. At stake is the Gospel itself.
For all its talk about evangelism and the Great Commission, the Transforming Churches Network never really gets around to preaching the Gospel. The Gospel has been substituted with a clever gospel of works. Seekers in Triads are bottle-fed dialectic formula, small groups and learning communities are teething on the Church Growth Movement diet of mission only, and pastors are renewed with a steady intravenous drip of the latest leadership materials off the shelf of the nearest bookstore. The flock, that faithful remnant which haven’t yet been driven off, are left to wander in the wilderness in search of spiritual sustenance. For them, the table is never set. They are not the apple of the shepherd’s eye, but rather the discarded apple core, important only in a “what have you done for me lately” sense.
TCN has forgotten that the Church, the bride of Christ, is that group of people which gather around Word and Sacrament. For TCN, the Church is no longer in the “business” of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. It’s been redefined through the lens of “mission.” It is obvious that ‘mission” has become TCN’s material principle, the central belief around which everything else revolves.
The pastor turned CEO preaches sermons on the missional nature of the Church, when it is Law and Gospel that we first need to hear. He views his parishioners as missionaries, not sinners in need of a Savior. He evaluates his staff based on their effectiveness in reaching the lost, forgetting that it is the Word that is efficacious. He is defined based on his leadership ability. The focus has shifted from what Christ is doing in the life of His Church, to what we are doing. The Gospel is mentioned in passing, but we must now add something to it to attract the “unchurched.”
Lutheran doctrine views the believer as primarily passive in the God / man transaction. Christ comes to us in Word and Sacrament. We sit with open hand as we are served by Jesus Christ Himself and receive His forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Divine Service. Secondarily, our activity in mission occurs through our vocation, in response to what God has done. In the Church Growth Movement paradigm, we are primarily active – we become the ministers. Passivity is replaced with an ever-busy list of self-chosen works. Something must be added to the Gospel to make it effective. Pastor Klemet Preus has something to say on this thought:
One of Luther’s most significant contributions to theology, built upon his doctrine of justification, is his understanding of the inherent power of the gospel. The gospel does not become powerful when and if something is added. It is powerful always because Jesus is both its content and its administrator. Every false teaching can be evaluated and described in terms of what that false teaching tries to add to the gospel to make it work. The word becomes powerful “when we get out of God’s way,” or when placed into the hands of a church that has accepted the “mission paradigm” or “thinks like a missionary,” or that has become a “great commission church” (Hunter and the Church Growth Movement). To Luther, and we might add, to the Holy Spirit, the word is powerful because in it Jesus speaks and forgives. Whenever the inherent power of the word is questioned, then people substitute for it “their own preparations and works” (AC V). (online reference)
In the new TCN paradigm, the Gospel is viewed as a “given” that gets a quick nod as we move on to more important topics. Lutheran theologian Hans Joachim Iwand describes what happens when justification is no longer the material principle:
An evangelical church which looks upon the doctrine of justification by faith as a self-evident banality one no longer needs to dwell upon because other problems are more pressing has robbed itself of the possibility of arriving at solutions to such problems. It will only tear itself further apart. If the article of justification is removed from the center we will very soon no longer know why we are and must remain evangelical Christians. Then we will strive for the unity of the church and sacrifice the purity of the gospel; we will expect more from church order and government, from the reform of ecclesiastical office and church discipline, than these can deliver. One will flatter piety and despise doctrine; one will run the risk of becoming tolerant where one should be radical and radical where one should be tolerant – in short, the standards will be skewed and therewith also what is necessary and right in all the reforms for which we struggle today will no longer be comprehensible. (online reference)
Dr. Iwand’s observation, written in 1959, is certainly prescient. We see TCN reordering the Office of the Holy Ministry as they ignore doctrine, and “vision” supplants the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. “Vision” is not a means of grace. Truth is reordered as believer and unbeliever jointly search for a dialectically-achieved unity. We bypass the Gospel as we flail around, hopelessly meandering through gimmick after gimmick in search of solutions. One week it’s The Prayer of Jabez, then The Purpose-Driven Life, then 7 Habits of Highly Effective People plus Winning on Purpose, followed by EvangeCubes, Ablaze! bracelets, and Triads.
There will always be people who will say that we are disinterested in the growth of the Church because we dismiss programs like the Mission Revitalization Process – nothing could be further from the truth. Listen to what this church growth fan has to say:
Though the public ministry, which the congregation confers mediately by a call, must be maintained as a divine ordinance, still no absolute necessity dare be ascribed to it. The Holy Ghost is active to generate and sustain faith in the hearts of men also when lay Christians preach the Gospel from inner necessity as well as according to God’s command. The preaching of the Word by Christians in their homes, in their intercourse with their brethren and with the world, is not left to their option or caprice, but is God’s order. This fact must be stressed unceasingly. In so far as Christians fail to bear witness, they are forgetting their Christian calling and doing the Christian Church untold harm.
Who spoke those words? Dr. Francis Pieper, written in 1920 (in German), when the LCMS was growing rapidly (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III, p. 449) – before the great CGM panic. We dare not forget his words. Whether the LCMS grows or shrinks, we must continue to evangelize the world from pulpit and pew in the manner in which Christ has called us to proclaim His name. Confessionalism and mission are not an “either/or,” they are a “both/and.”
What programs can we design to replace the Mission Revitalization Process that will accomplish the important task of evangelizing the lost and still remain faithful to our Confession? Two Lutheran pastors answer that question,
Pastor Wil Weedon,
These words need to be taken to heart. I don’t know if Lutheranism in this country can be saved or not. But that’s not ultimately my job or yours. My task as a Lutheran pastor is to seek to foster that renewal which Neuhaus described: a renewal in theology; a renewal in pastoral practice; a renewal in sacramental life; a renewal in catechesis. He left off what is perhaps the most important of all, for it is where all renewal begins: a renewal in the Word of God and in prayer. These will be LUTHERAN renewal if they are lived out from the joyous “aha” that is AC IV. (online reference)
and Professor John Pless,
We live in a world that desires a church without God, at least without the God of Israel and Jesus. There is a danger that in our ardent desire to reached the unchurched we become unchurched ourselves. We best evangelize simply by being church. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). And in the presence of angels, and archangels, and the whole company of heaven that proclamation will echo out into all the world to the salvation of many. No new programs that try to convince the pagans that we are just like them after all. No Friendship Sundays. Not mega-church or meta-church, just plain church, created and sustained by the life-imparting words of Jesus along with His evangelical sacraments. These are the Mysteria Dei which are at the center of the church’s life and apostolic mission. (online reference)
God grant us the wisdom and steadfastness required to stand firm on our Confession, that we may evangelize and catechize the world, serving our neighbors through our vocations, and leading them to the forgiveness of sins found in the life-giving Word and Sacraments of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel itself that is at stake. We must not yield.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42 ESV).
Photo credit: Adam Polselli
For Further Reference:
This entire series of posts on the Transforming Churches Network can be downloaded as a single PDF document.
“Can ‘Transforming Churches’ Be Fixed?” by Johannes
“A Book Review of ‘Testing the Claims of Church Growth,’ by Rev. Rodney E. Zwonitzer;” by Scott Diekmann
“The Theology of the Church Growth Movement: An Evaluation of Kent Hunter’s Confessions,” by Pastor Klemet Preus
“Vocation and Evangelism,” by Professor John Pless
“Theology and Practice of ‘the Divine Call’: A Minority Opinion,” by Seminarian Paul Nus
“Small Groups and the Dialectic Process,” by Berit Kjos:
“Transforming the Church Through the Dialectic,” by Dean Gotcher:
“Church Growth Through Cell Groups: A Consideration of Four Books on Cell Church Methodology,” by Pastor Kevin Fenster and Greta Olsoe